Some people, some very smart people, believe that through the magic of genetic engineering, we'll soon have a new generation of “super intelligent” people. There may even be a legal requirement to optimize the designated genetic make-up of new humans. Sounds like a science fiction novel, but the technology is close to making this kind of scenario practical.
Of course, it would take a “super intelligent” person to create a new generation of “super intelligent” people. And certainly, replication of “super intelligence” would appear to be the intelligent goal. How will we ever solve the great problems that confront us without a greater and greater supply of super intelligent people?
Apparently, no one is working on a genetic model for creating super compassionate people. Mostly because super compassionate people aren't a dominant force in the science of gene editing. And, after all, compassion isn't going to solve global warming, seas filled with plastic or the sixth mass extinction.
I wonder what would happen if you took two planets and filled one with super intelligent people and the other with super compassionate people of varying intelligence? After a few hundred years had passed, which planet do you think you'd prefer to live on?
At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.
Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”
The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.
Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.
But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”
In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.
Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.
I came across this piece of music while reading David Byrne's latest post about his new project, Contemporary Color. One of the groups in a competition he was observing performed to a song by Vienna Teng called “The Hymn of Acxiom.” A hymn is a song of praise.
Acxiom is a database company that tracks personal data on the Network. They sell that data to other corporations for a variety of purposes to be used in many contexts. When I was working in online identity, we hired Acxiom to create out-of-band questions as a second factor in user authentication. For instance, you might provide a password and then answer a question from Acxiom. For example, here are three addresses. Have you ever lived at any of them? They can create that kind of question on the fly because they know everything about just about everyone.
Traditionally a hymn is addressed to a deity. The form of this song tells us something about the attitude of the singer. The hymn is also meant to be sung by the community surrounding the deity. Stewart Brand believes that humans have supplanted the gods, and must now act like it, in the face of global warming and other planetary disasters. Certainly humans, as a species, have put a stamp on the fate of the planet and all its inhabitants. But an individual human doesn't have the power of the whole species. And as “gods” is a plural, it doesn't preclude the possibility of others. Say, Acxiom, for instance.
A Hymn of Acxiom
Somebody hears you. You know that, you know that…
Somebody hears you. You know that inside.
Someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to
(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.
Here you’re known.
Leave your life open. You don’t have, you don’t have…
Leave your life open. You don’t have to hide.
Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
Keep them all.
Let our formulas find your soul.
We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
Marshal feed and force (our machines will)
To design you a perfect love—
Or (better still) a perfect lust.
O how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.
Now we possess you. You’ll own that, you’ll own that…
Now we possess you. You’ll own that in time.
Now we will build you an endlessly upward world,
(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.
As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.
Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.
Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.
When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.
Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”
As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.
While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.
Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.